Monday, November 18, 2013
U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan, not known for his timidity, defended the Common Core state standards to a gathering of state school superintendents last week by attacking a previously unknown enemy: suburban moms.
Duncan, speaking in Richmond on Friday, told the superintendents that he found it "fascinating" that the opposition to Common Core included "white suburban moms who - all of a sudden - their child isn't as brilliant as they thought they were, and their school isn't quite as good as they thought they were."
Update: 4:39 p.m.: Duncan apologized to CNN moments ago. "My wording, my phrasing, was a little clumsy, and I apologize for that," he said. That came after a day in which media coverage and backlash over the remarks intensified. According the Associated Press: "American Federation of Teachers president Randi Weingarten said Duncan "really doesn't get it." Rep. Steve Stockman, R-Texas, tweeted that Duncan "should be fired for dismissing #CommonCore critics as just white suburban moms with dumb kids."
Some quick background: The Common Core standards have been going through a bit of a rough patch lately. After officials in 48 states agreed on developing consistent, demanding math and reading standards for their students, a few states have hit the pause button, and others are wondering if they should back off their commitment.
Adding to the vulnerability: Several states, including North Carolina, are unveiling their first batch of results on standardized testing linked to the Core. The results have been jarring everywhere. In North Carolina, only 34 percent of eighth graders are proficient in math, with only 41 percent meeting reading standards.
The scores also revealed an achievement gap even starker than most imagined, with stunningly small percentages of low-income students scoring well across the country. Middle- and high-income students also are experiencing a drop in scores - albeit smaller. As you might expect, no one is happy to be surprised with a poor test score, especially when you thought your child and his/her school was doing just fine.
So there's a grain of truth in what Duncan said. He just didn't need to say it so acidly.
Duncan and Common Core's advocates already have to deal with opposition from conservatives who despise everything that the Obama administration touches. He has to fight the silly claims about a federal takeover of education, and the sillier claims about the Core being a vehicle for feds to collect data on students and their families.
Some teachers also are unhappy with the lack of preparation and training they've been given in transitioning their classrooms to the new standards. But most threatening, perhaps, is the budding argument that the Core is just another education fad - and one that adds more testing to already burdened classrooms.
That's the kind of argument that suburban moms - and dads - can latch onto. The argument they need to hear is that the low scores they might be seeing are ultimately a good thing. They're showing how much better our schools need to be.
Duncan said that, too, on Friday. And he acknowledged that parents have been rattled. "You've bet your house and where you live and everything on 'My child's going to be prepared.' That can be a punch in the gut."
Yes. They didn't need a verbal kick in the teeth, too.
Peter St. Onge
Posted by The Observer Editorial Board at 10:14 AM